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Richard Jordan: 2018 marked the British Broadway blockbuster while US writers went bold and gritty

A scene from Sweat. Photo: Joan Marcus
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At the start of the year I was sceptical whether UK theatre could match the excellent new work that emerged in 2017, including The FerrymanOsloNetworkHamilton, Ink, Flesh and Bone, The Jungle and Gloria. I needn’t have worried, 2018 has held up well with strong new plays including ImperiumThe Great Wave, Build a Rocket, Nine NightThe Inheritance, Sweat, Ulster American and John.

For me, the three best new plays of the year are all by US writers: John by Annie Baker; Sweat by Lynn Nottage and The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez. In the US, on the other hand, much has been written about the current invasion of British drama on Broadway where a litany of high-profile transfers have commentators suggesting UK writers are shoring up the Great White Way.

If US writers seem to be looking at altogether grittier subject matters, in ensemble-led shows, British drama transfers on Broadway in recent years have arguably become far more dazzling and flashy affairs.

Just look at the high-tech design of National Theatre transfer Network which also, like in London, has part of its Broadway audience dining on stage. The Ferryman is a terrific epic piece of writing with a large cast and celebrated director, while Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is similarly big and bold. It could be considered the era of the “British blockbuster play” equivalent to the 1980s when “British blockbuster musicals” dominated Broadway headlines.

Although, it’s important not to forget that there were a number of US musical composers during those years – including Stephen Sondheim – who were busy writing sophisticated and intricate contemporary musical works. When the “British blockbuster” bubble eventually burst, they assumed power of their musical theatre industry and have continued to do so.

The British have done a fine job in recent years of cracking the commercial play on Broadway. Yet at the same time, US playwrights are writing works with a greater legacy, which is particularly apparent in many that are emerging from Off-Broadway.

Sweat, The Inheritance (which was originally commissioned by Hartford Stage in Connecticut and received it’s world premiere at London’s Young Vic), and John all have the likelihood of multiple-licensed productions across the US and globally, whereas British productions have often arrived as theatrical “events”. A number of these British productions may make plenty of noise at the time, but have seen limited revivals.

John, The Inheritance and Sweat have a lot to say about the moment we are living in. But, crucially, the audience invests in the characters first, which drives the play, makes them accessible and will keep them relevant.

‘For me, the three best new plays of the year are all by US writers’

Sweat, which is about a US working-class town at the turn of the century sliding into deep decline as its factory lays off staff, explores the tragic consequences at the most personal of levels. The specific events may be far removed for many in the audience but there is no doubt they will relate to the emotional themes, the glue connecting them to the action in front of them.

And suddenly the human response to the events that drive the plot makes it a play relevant to the UK and its current affairs, and indeed many places around the world.

Often in UK theatre this year, it feels like playwrights have sought to write the issue first, often to an agenda. One such example was David Hare’s new play I’m Not Running at the National. Where his past plays such as Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, Absence of War and Stuff Happens had felt urgent, this one felt it was deliberately being made-to-order.

What a stark contrast to Alexander Zeldin’s 2016 play Love on the UK housing crisis (revived on tour this year) at the same venue. When it was produced, the play felt both ready and timely.

Watching the National’s production My Country: A Work in Progress, in 2017, I had a similar feeling. It felt rushed to be the first work responding to Brexit and fell short on expectations.

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe the same thing happened with some works responding to the #MeToo movement. And it felt as though some shows were rewarded for issue over script when they had needed another draft and more development.

For me, the best new British play of the year was Build a Rocket by Christopher York. It premiered at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and then transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe. However, there it was largely overlooked, as it did not fit with what had become this year’s agenda. Yet its topic of a young single mother surviving and unexpectedly full of hope was in no way less urgent.

Going forward into next year, there’s enormous responsibility to ensure that works being produced that respond to the global social and political issues are ready, and are seen at their very best. Get this right they will be seen on stages for a lot longer than many of their razzle-dazzle counterparts.

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